WEST LAFAYETTE – One down, three (at least) to go for Purdue.
The Boilermakers put themselves in a position where they have to win their final three games of the regular season and at least one game in the Big Ten Tournament to have a chance at an at-large NCAA Tournament bid. They got the first of those essential victories tonight with a 57-49 win over Indiana. The Boilermakers continued their recent dominance of the in-state rivalry and have now won seven straight against the Hoosiers and 10 of the last 11 for the first time since a stretch of 13 wins in 14 meetings from 1929 to 1938.
It was a different type of win for the Boilermakers. When they've beaten good (yes, Indiana qualifies, for now at least) teams this season, they've generally gotten hot from beyond the 3-point line. Tonight was the opposite – Purdue won despite going just 2 for 17 from beyond the arc and missing a plethora of second-half opportunities to really put the game away with some open 3-pointers.
"Can we beat a good team when we don't shoot well?" coach Matt Painter said. "I thought we played a little bit better today. Obviously we didn't shoot well and sometimes people confuse the two. I thought it was a good grind-it-out win, even though it was pretty hard to watch."
Rather than shooting, it was defense that carried the day for the Boilermakers. They held Indiana to a season-worst 25% from the field, chiefly by taking Trayce Jackson-Davis out of the game, fronting the post and sending a second defender to harass the 2019 Indiana Mr. Basketball whenever he touched the ball. Jackson-Davis, who has been a superstar for Indiana recently, did not attempt a shot for the final 13:45 of the first half and looked rushed every time he touched the ball.
Painter, who noted that he recruited Jackson-Davis and has a great deal of respect for him, expressed puzzlement that more teams haven't been double-teaming the freshman. My guess is that that is exactly what will happen on a more consistent basis for the rest of the season. Tonight was a blueprint for shutting down Indiana's offense: deny Jackson-Davis and Joey Brunk the ball in the post and at the same time try to pressure Indiana's guard into mistakes. Rob Phinisee, Devonte Green and Al Durham, Indiana's primary ball-handlers, had two assists and eight turnovers tonight. That's not good enough to beat anyone, let alone a rival on the road. To beat double-teams of Jackson-Davis, those guards have to move without the ball better than they did tonight, as well.
"I feel like the guards, honestly, have to do a better job of getting open (for kick-outs)," said Phinisee, who was 3 for 11 from the field and had seven points. "I feel like once we get open, it's easier because they're breaking down since they're (having to move) so much on the perimeter."
With the win, Purdue earned the right to go play another must-win game at No. 18 Iowa on Tuesday. There are no easy wins in the Big Ten, but that also means there are plenty of opportunities to build an NCAA Tournament résumé and it's the reason that the Boilermakers could make the field of 68 with an 18-15 record.
"You're so fortunate to be in this opportunity, when you keep playing teams that are going to go to the NCAA Tournament," Painter said. "I know (Indiana) isn't a lock to go to the NCAA Tournament, but if they take care of their business at home they will, they've done enough in my opinion. ... I don't think we're in that position. We've gotta win a road game (at Iowa). We've gotta win a home game (against Rutgers). We've gotta go to the Big Ten Tournament and probably win games. Not probably, we do. That's the feeling that I have."
Purdue has won big games before. The M.O. for this team all season has been huge wins followed by bad losses, usually on the road. The Boilers now have yet another opportunity to shed the "inconsistent" label and put together a winning streak before the Big Ten Tournament. Painter emphasized the importance of preparing the same way after a win as you would after a loss.
"The one thing about being inconsistent is you had to play well to get that tag," Painter said. "If you don't, you're just a bad team. ... We've been here, we've won three in a row when we won at Assembly Hall (on Feb. 8). Then we lost four in a row. So winning a game doesn't mean you've arrived. You played well in a game. Can you play well at this time of year in back-to-back games and hopefully string some wins together?"
On Indiana's side, the good news is that this wasn't a back-breaking loss for the Hoosiers. They probably will be just fine if they beat Minnesota and Wisconsin at home to end the regular season or split those games and win one in the Big Ten Tournament. Though this defeat is disappointing for an Indiana team that just can't seem to break through against the Boilermakers, it was encouraging to see the Hoosiers bring the same fight they had when they beat Minnesota and No. 9 Penn State last week. For the first time all season, IU has seemingly found the ability to play with the necessary energy on a consistent basis. Now, if shots would only fall from the outside on a semi-consistent basis, as well, this team could really be something.
"Credit to Purdue, they've got a good team, man, played really hard," coach Archie Miller said. "This is one of the hardest places in the country to play. But I give our guys credit, as well, I thought we hung really tough, competed. Now it's time to do it again. We're back on the road Sunday (at Illinois) and it's going to be much more of the same.
"From this point forward, it's going to go fast. There's no time to dwell. It's time to get better, it's time to move on and keep working. I can't fault our effort and I won't fault our attitude. I thought our team in general tonight tried to play the right way and played hard, period."